CHARLOTTESVILLE — Going back to 2013, six different football teams have finished first in the ACC’s Coastal Division.
The seventh is still looking for a breakthrough.
That would be Virginia, whose fourth-year head coach, Bronco Mendenhall, was most helpful in offering that information to reporters at the ACC Football Kickoff in July.
“Any time you’re part of a conference, the goal is to win the conference championship,” Mendenhall said. “That’s some of the value added of being in a conference.
“It would be nice for us to clean up this neat little package of us being the seventh team — the seventh different team — to win the Coastal.
“It doesn’t always work like that. That will happen when we earn it, when we play well enough for that to happen.”
Mendenhall had others in his camp. The ACC media picked the Cavaliers to win the Coastal title.
“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that,” Mendenhall said “We have an expectation that that’s what we’re capable of.”
The last time that the Cavaliers finished as high as second in the Coastal Division was in 2007, when they were tied for first with Virginia Tech going into the traditional Commonwealth Cup regular-season finale. The visiting Hokies won 33-21 their fourth straight victory over UVa at the time. Tech’s winning streak has now reached 15 games.
The Cavaliers were not in Coastal Division contention in Mendenhall’s first two seasons and were seldom a contender under predecessors Al Groh and Mike London. In 2018, however, they were 7-3 overall and 4-2 in conference play before overtime losses at Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.
Although UVa had clinched a winning season and received a second consecutive bowl berth, no one was predicting what happened next, a 28-0 rout of South Carolina in the Belk Bowl.
Quarterback Bryce Perkins, who had begun his college career at Arizona State and later spent time at Arizona Western Junior College, passed for 208 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for 81 yards.
“He’s the primary reason we jumped our win output from six to eight,” Mendenhall said of his quarterback. “He’s one of the primary catalysts for our program. Quite frankly, how he goes, we go.”
Much could be determined during an early season schedule that includes a trip to Pittsburgh for the opening game Aug. 31. The Cavaliers have never won at Pittsburgh in five meetings and dropped a 23-13 decision to the Panthers last year in Charlottesville.
Pitt went on to win the Coastal Division championship, but ended the season at 7-7 with consecutive season-ending losses — all on the road or at neutral sites — to Miami, Clemson and Stanford.
Virginia has an unusual schedule that includes three current or former in-state FCS schools — William and Mary, Old Dominion and Liberty. In between September dates with William and Mary and ODU, UVa hosts Florida State for the first time since 2010.
Two weeks after that, the Cavaliers will make their first appearance at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. It will be the third meeting between the teams, who last met at Scott Stadium in 2015 as the Irish pulled out a 34-27 win in the closing seconds.
Virginia went 2-10 in November during Mendenhall’s first three seasons, including 1-3 last year, when the lone victory was over first-time opponent Liberty, 45-34.
“I would just as soon have played them earlier,” said Mendenhall of this year’s Nov. 10 date with the Flames. “But, where it fit is where it fit.”
Clearly, it will be important for the Cavaliers to keep injuries to a minimum, particularly at quarterback, where Perkins was banged up on occasion but never missed more than a possession or two.
“We know what we have on our team,” Perkins said. “We definitely have the talent and we definitely have the mindset, too. It’s going to be a factor late in the season of how competitive and ferocious we are. Not only that but closing out games.
“We have to become a team of great finishing ability.”